THE CONQUEST OF INDIA, AND OF THE SPICE COUNTRIES, I
Covilham and Païva—Vasco da Gama—The Cape of Good Hope is doubled—Escalès at Sam-Braz—Mozambique, Mombaz, and Melinda—Arrival at Calicut—Treason of the Zamorin—Battles—Return to Europe—The scurvy—Death of Paul da Gama—Arrival at Lisbon.
At the same time that the King of Portugal, John II., despatched Diaz to seek in the south of Africa the route to the Indies, he ordered two gentlemen of his court to find out if it would not be possible to attain the same end by an easier, safer, and more rapid means; by way of the isthmus of Suez, the Red Sea, and the Indian Ocean.
For carrying out such a mission there was needed a clever, enterprising man, well acquainted with the difficulties of a journey in those regions, and possessing a knowledge of the Oriental languages, or at the very least, of Arabic. This agent must be of a versatile disposition, and able to dissemble; capable, in a word, of concealing the real meaning of projects which aimed at nothing less than withdrawing all the commerce of Asia from the hands of the Mussulmans and Arabs, and through them from the Venetians, in order to enrich Portugal with it.
There was living at this time an experienced navigator, Pedro de Covilham, who had served with distinction under Alonzo V. in the war with Castille, and who had made a long stay in Africa. It was upon him that John II. cast his eye, and Alonzo de Païva was given him as a colleague. They left Lisbon in the month of May, 1487, furnished with detailed instructions, and with a chart drawn according to Bishop Calsadilla's map of the World, by the help of which the tour of Africa might be made.
The two travellers reached Alexandria and Cairo, where they were much gratified at meeting with some Moorish traders from Fez and Tlemcen, who conducted them to Tor—the ancient Ezion-geber—at the foot of Sinai, where they were able to procure some valuable information upon the trade of Calicut. Covilham resolved to take advantage of this fortunate circumstance to visit a country which, for more than a century, had been regarded by Portugal with covetous longing, while Païva set out to penetrate into those regions then so vaguely designated as Ethiopia, in quest of the famous Prester John, who, according to old travellers, reigned over a marvellously rich and fertile country in Africa. Païva doubtless perished in his adventurous enterprise, being never again heard of.
As for Covilham, he travelled to Aden, whence he embarked for the Malabar coast. He visited in succession Cananore, Calicut, and Goa, and collected accurate information upon the commerce and productions of the countries bordering on the Indian Ocean, without arousing the fears of the Hindoos, who could not suspect that the kind and friendly welcome they accorded to the traveller would bring about in the future the enthralment and ruin of their country. Covilham, not considering that he had yet done enough for his country, quitted India, and went to the eastern coast of Africa, where he visited Mozambique, Sofala—long famous for its gold-mines, of which the reputation, by means of the Arabs, had even reached Europe—and Zeila, the Avalites portus of the ancients, and the principal town of the Adel coast, upon the Gulf of Oman, at the entrance of the Arabian Sea. After a somewhat long stay in that country, he returned by Aden, then the principal entrepôt of the commerce of the east, went as far as Ormuz, at the entrance of the Persian Gulf, and then again passing up the Red Sea, he arrived at Cairo.
John II. had sent to Cairo two learned Jews to await the arrival of Covilham, and to one of these, the Rabbi Abraham Beja, the traveller gave his notes, the itinerary of his journey, and a map of Africa given to him by a Mussulman, charging Beja to carry them all to Lisbon with the least possible delay. For himself, not content with all that he had done hitherto, and wishing to execute the mission which death had prevented Païva from accomplishing, he went into Abyssinia, where the "negus" or king, known by the name of Prester John, flattered by seeing his alliance sought by one of the most powerful sovereigns of Europe, received him with the greatest kindness, and gave him a high position at his court, but to make sure of retaining his services, he constantly refused him permission to leave the country. Although he had married there and had some children, Covilham still longed for his native country, and when, in 1525, a Portuguese embassy, of which Alvarès was a member, came into Abyssinia, he witnessed the departure of his countrymen with the deepest regret, and the chaplain of the expedition has naïvely re-echoed his complaints and his grief.
M. Ferdinand Denis says, "By furnishing precise information upon the possibility of circumnavigating Africa, by indicating the route to the Indies, by giving more positive and extended ideas upon the commerce of these countries, and above all, by describing the gold-mines of Sofala, and so exciting the cupidity of the Portuguese, Covilham contributed greatly to accelerate the expedition of Gama."